I know that sounds like a strange question, particularly with all the hype today about big data. We’ve all been watching the volume of data grow and grow and grow. I’m sure you’ve heard as many statistics as I have thrown about. We’ve progressed from talking about gigabytes to terabytes to petabytes. So why do I think it might be going away?
Last Friday I attended one of SAP’s Startup Forums in the Boston area. Dr. Sam Madden, who runs MIT’s CSAIL (Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Lab) presented the keynote for the event. While most might think the concept of big data is self-explanatory, Dr. Madden actually defined it as follows: Big data is data that is too big, too fast or too hard for existing systems and algorithms to handle. Big data, by Dr. Madden’s definition, might eventually go away. Not because there is less of it, but because we are better equipped to handle it.
SAP is certainly trying very hard to make this happen and its Startup Forums are manifestations of this effort. While this is the first of its kind in the Boston area, SAP has been holding these around the world for a while now. The format is interesting. Think of it as speed dating between really bright technologists and potential investors (including SAP Ventures and its $155 million venture fund). Picture 15 different startups in a room, each with five minutes to give their pitch on who they are and why their ideas are the next best things in the world of big data.
Why is this a match made in heaven for these guys (and yes, sorry, but every single one of them was male)? Because these brilliant minds come up with truly creative ideas and often need funding to get them (and their products and services) off the ground. SAP is looking for promising startups interested in developing solutions on top of the HANA platform. SAP doesn’t ask for money, code or intellectual property (IP). It provides an SAP HANA test environment and development licenses, a development boot camp and technical support at no charge until the startup runs live on HANA. At the point when HANA is embedded in a product, SAP will begin to see some revenue.
Of the 15 presenting, some were already participating in the program; others were potential participants. Some made the HANA connection in their pitches; some did not. Dr. Madden suggested (and a panel of partners from technology investment companies from the area agreed), “Big data is over-hyped. It is a new name for something we have been doing for the last five years.” But he also acknowledged awareness of and access to new data as a result of the convergence of some major trends. We have the digitization of data. We’re collecting more because of the emergence of inexpensive sensors, access to cheap computing and storage and an increasingly connected world.
While it might be over-hyped, big data is not going away any time soon. There is still plenty of opportunity based on current solutions’ inability to handle the volume of data that already exists and is emerging from these trends. That’s probably a good thing for SAP and other vendors jumping on the in-memory and big data bandwagon. Right now SAP HANA’s value proposition needs big data. But do customers and prospects see that? And do they see HANA as the solution?
It is clear that those bright technologists presenting their ideas recognize this opportunity and HANA’s potential. As do the 170 live customers of HANA and the other 40-50 that have HANA projects underway. But this is still a very small sample of the 232,000 SAP customers worldwide, 80% of which are small to medium size enterprises (SMEs). Does the typical SAP customer (or prospect) understand what HANA can do for them? The answer isn’t just, “No.” The real answer is, “Hell no!”
SAP’s single biggest challenge in bringing HANA to market is not in developing the technology, but in describing it in a way that helps average business people understand what it can do for them. So far SAP has largely described it as an elegant technical solution in search of a problem. It also suffers from having initially described HANA as an in memory alternative to a traditional database. Dennis Howlett has summed it up the best of any I have seen so far in saying,
“HANA is much more than that. While it might have started out as a poorly thought out (Oracle competitive) database play, it is a development environment that is providing ISVs with extraordinary opportunities to rethink business processes as well as providing the real time platform for both analytics and the transactional systems.”
But the average enterprise, particular an SME isn’t looking for a development environment. This explains why HANA has been most successful in large enterprises where you have large IT staffs with big budgets and lots of problems to solve. But that is not how the vast majority of businesses spend their budgets, particularly SMEs. They are looking for a solution to a problem, but they don’t want to develop a solution.
The typical SME won’t develop a HANA solution. It will seek a solution developed on HANA. This is why the SAP Startup Forum is so important- to provide solutions to all those potential problems. Lots of problems, across lots of industries will require lots of solutions.
In the meantime SAP is also making its ERP solutions available on HANA thereby providing some important differentiation in a market where in some ways traditional ERP has become viewed as a commodity. But HANA will not differentiate SAP’s ERP solutions until or unless business leaders understand what HANA can do for them. ERP will run faster, but unless speed is a barrier to doing business, the business won’t pay much (if anything) to make it faster.
Businesses won’t pay to make life in general better. But they will pay to solve a particular problem or overcome a particular challenge. The challenge SAP faces is first in helping those business leaders identify those problems and secondly to convince them the problem is indeed solvable.
For those of you in my generation, think back to the phone you had in your childhood. For me it was a rotary-dial, three party line. Our biggest problem was calling a neighbor who shared our party line. If you had told us we could have a phone that would allow us to snap a picture and instantly send it to someone, not across town, but halfway around the world, we wouldn’t necessarily have jumped at the chance. First of all, we probably wouldn’t have believed you. Secondly, we wouldn’t have perceived the need to do it. We just didn’t think like that.
It took us many years and many generations of technology to get from that rotary dial three party line to today’s smart phones and networks, with all the inherent capabilities. Something tells me it won’t take us 50 years before business leaders start demanding what HANA has to offer, but we’re not there yet. In the meantime, it is safe to say big data is here to stay.